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Excerpt for PARANOID

Kensington
June 2019, ISBN: 1496722469

Genre: Romantic Suspense

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Now

Patient: “I see him.  I see Luke. He’s . . . he’s alive and he’s smiling.  He says-- oh, God--he says, “I forgive you.”

Therapist: “Where is he?”

Patient: “In the warehouse, I mean fish cannery . . . the abandoned one on the waterfront, built on piers over the river.”

Therapist: “I know the one you mean.  You’ve told me about it before.”

Patient: “But it’s been condemned.  For a long time.”

Therapist: “I know.  Is anyone else there?”

Patient: “Yes. Oh yes.  We are all there. The ones who were there on the night . . . on the night Luke died.”

Therapist: “The night you were playing the game?”

Patient, frowning, voice a whisper.  “Yes . . . it was supposed to be a game. We had those pretend guns. Trying to shoot each other.”

“Your friends?”

A deeper frown as the patient’s head moves side to side.  “No. Not all friends. Others were there.”

“You saw them?”

“It was too dark.  But they were there.”

“And now?  They’re back?”

Patient, swallowing hard:  “I don’t know. But I think so.  It’s so dark.”

“But you’re certain you’re in the cannery.”

“Yes.  Yes! I hear the river running beneath the floor–smell it-- and I hear voices of the other kids but not what they’re saying.  It’s too noisy. All those clicking guns and pounding footsteps.”

“But you see Luke?”

“Yes!”  The patient’s lips twist into a fleeting smile.  “Oh, my God! He’s . . . He’s alive!”

Therapist: “You’re talking to him?”

“Yes.  I told you.”  The patient pauses.  The smile fades. “But it’s hard to hear him.  Other kids are talking, and laughing, some of the guns are going off and echoing.  The building is so big. So dark. So . . .”

“So, what?”

The patient becomes sober, almost frightened and hesitates before whispering, “Evil.  It’s like . . . it’s like there’s something else in that old building. Something hiding in the darkness.”  The patient’s voice begins to tremble. “Something . . . malicious.” Then the panic sets in. As it always does. “Oh, God.”  The patient’s tone is suddenly frantic. “I–we–have to get out. We have to leave. Now! We have to get out. We have to!”

“It’s time.”  Therapist, calmly: “You’re rising.  Getting out of the cannery.  Leaving the building and the evil far behind you.”

“But Luke!  No! I can’t abandon him.  Oh, my God. He’s been shot!  He’s bleeding! I have to save him!”  

Therapist: “You are becoming more aware.”

“No! No! No! I can’t leave him.  I have to help!” The patient is in a full-blown panic. “Someone!  Help!”

“You must surface now.  Leave this place for the time being.  You are leaving the building. You must save yourself.”  The therapist is insistent, in control. “On my count.”

Patient, frantic: “Yes!  Okay. But . . . but I have to hurry!  And bring Luke--”

Therapist: “Three.  And you’re leaving the cannery and the past behind.”

“If I leave Luke, he’ll die.  All over again. I can’t--”

Therapist, firmly: “Two.  And you’re nearly awake.”

Patient: “I–I need to talk to him.  To explain.” But the patient is acquiescing.

Therapist: “One.”

The patient’s eyes open to the small, dimly lit room that smells faintly of jasmine.  Lying in the recliner staring at the ceiling, the patient’s breathing returns to normal. Calm restored, the patient meets the therapist’s eyes.

Smiling benignly, the therapist says softly, “And you’re back.”

____________________________

20 years ago
Midnight
Edgewater, Oregon

Prologue

Are you out of your frickin’ mind?

The nagging voice in Rachel’s brain chased after her as she ran through the dry weeds that had sprouted through decades old asphalt.  The night was dark, just a sliver of the moon visible, its pale light a dim glow that came and went in the undulating clouds overhead.  Soon the clouds would settle and sprawl over the river, fog oozing and crawling through the forgotten piers and pilings to encase this abandoned building and move inland to cover the town. Through the thin mist only one dim security light offered any sort of illumination. and she tripped twice before reaching the mesh fence surrounding the abandoned fish cannery.

You can’t do this, Rachel.  Really. Think about it. Your dad’s a cop.  A damned detective. Stop!

She didn’t.  Instead she slipped through a hole in the fence, her backpack catching on a jagged piece of wiring and ripping as she pressed forward, following her friend.  Well, at least her once-upon-a-time friend. Now Rachel wasn’t so sure. Petite, vibrant Lila was more interested in Rachel’s older brother, Luke, than she was in Rachel.

“Hurry up!” Lila called over her shoulder from twenty yards ahead.  Her blond hair reflected the weak light as she ran along the bridge, a narrow, crumbling roadway built on piers over the water.  

Rachel sped up, following.

As she had forever it seemed.  Lila always came up with the plans and Rachel went along.

“I don’t know why you do it,” Luke had said about six months ago while driving home from school, Rachel riding shotgun.  “It’s like you’re some kind of lap dog, y’know, a puppy following her around.” He’d slid a glance her way, his blue eyes knowing.

“I am not,” she’d argued, glancing out the window at the gray Oregon day, rain drizzling down the glass, but she’d felt the little sting of it, the truth to it.  Luke had been right, though she’d hated to admit it.

Now, the tables had turned as he and Lila had become a “thing.”  Which was probably worse.

“Rach!  Come on!” Lila now called over her shoulder.  “We’re already late!”

Yeah, to our own funeral.”

“Wha–oh, shut up!” Lila waved off Rachel’s reticence and kept moving. According to Rachel’s mother, Lila was a good girl gone bad, one who went through boyfriends faster than most people used up a roll of paper towels.  “She’s too smart and pretty for her own good. Always looking for trouble, that one,” Melinda Gaston had warned on more than one occasion. “She’s the kind of girl who sees what she wants and goes for it, no matter who she steps on in the process.”

Most likely true.  No, absolutely true.

“Come on!

Rachel sped up, following the faint light of the reflective strips on the back of Lila’s running shoes.  Following. Ever following. A problem. She’d work on that, but not tonight.

The brackish smell of the river was thick as Rachel caught up with her friend at the largest of the buildings, a hulking barn-like structure built on now-rotting pilings.  It rose dark and daunting, a huge, decrepit edifice that had been condemned years before.

“Great.”  Lila’s tone was one of disgust. “Everyone else is already here.”

“How do you know?” Rachel spoke in hushed tones, afraid that someone might hear her.  She glanced around the empty pock-marked lot surrounding the long-vacant buildings, but saw no one.  Still the back of her neck prickled in apprehension.

“I just do, okay?”  A pause. “Listen . . .  Hear that?”

Sounds emanated through the ancient wooden walls.  Muted voices, running footsteps, even a staccato Pop! Pop! Pop!  Not like real gun fire.  Just loud clicks.

Air guns.

Safe.

Still. It made her nervous.  Rachel’s stomach was in knots.

Another burst from an automatic.

Heart pounding, Rachel watched as Lila unzipped her own pack and pulled out a pistol, one that glinted in the bluish glare from the thin light of the single security lamp.

Rachel swallowed hard.  Though she knew Lila’s gun was just a replica that shot pellets, not bullets, it looked real.  As did her own.

“I don’t know--”

“What?  You’re going to wuss out now?” Lila said, unable to hide her disapproval.  “After all your talk about wanting to do something ‘outside the box,’ something that would shock your mom and dad?”

“No, but--”

“Sure.”  Lila wasn’t buying it.  “Fine. Do what you want.  You always do anyway. But I need to talk to Luke.”

“Here?”

“Wherever.”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

What the hell is that?” Rachel demanded at the loud, quick-fire reports.  “A real gun?”

“No.  I don’t think so.”

“Then what?”

“Shit.  It could be Moretti.  Nate said he and Max were going to bring fire crackers to you know, make the game more ‘real’.  Like it’s not scary enough.”

“What?”  

“I know.  Crazy, right?”  Lila seemed undeterred.  “Nate’s such a dweeb! Never knows when to dial it back.  He even has one of those things that make the gun sound louder and spark, y’know.”

This was sounding worse by the minute.  She knew Nate. The son of a doctor, he was Luke’s best friend even though they had been in different classes in high school.  “I think we should forget this--”

“I can’t.  I have to see Luke.”  Before Rachel could come up with any further arguments, Lila had slipped through the narrow gap where the huge barn door hung open. Stomach churning, Rachel followed after.

Inside, the cavernous building was even eerier.  Maybe it was her own mind playing tricks on her, but Rachel thought she smelled the remains of ancient fish guts and scales that had been stripped from the catch and dropped through open chutes in the floor to splash into the water below where waiting harbor seals, sea lions, seagulls and other scavengers snatched the bloody carcases.

All in your mind.  Remember that. This place has been abandoned for years.

That thought didn’t calm her jangling nerves.

Just inside, Rachel paused at the door, getting her bearings.  What no one else knew, not even Lila, was that she’d been here earlier, in the fading summer daylight, scoping out the interior to give herself a bit of an advantage. She had tried to embed in her mind a map of the hazards, the treacherous holes in the floor, the stacks of rusted barrels, the ladders and pulleys. Though she couldn’t see anyone, she heard the others.  Whispered conversation, footsteps scurrying along the ancient floor. The thud of feet climbing a metal ladder or shuffling across a catwalk overhead. The noises were barely audible over the wild beating of her heart.

These were her friends, she reminded herself, some kids she went to school with, others recent grads.  Nothing to worry about--

Click! Click! Click, click, click!

A pellet gun went off behind her, firing rapidly.  Missiles flying past her.

She flinched.  Whipped around.  Her hair flew over her eyes as she raised her pistol to aim at . . . nothing.  Son of a bitch! Squinting, heart hammering, she thought she saw a shadow moving near the partially open door. Maybe . . . Her throat tightened and she aimed.  But then again . . . maybe not. Her finger paused over the trigger. A bead of sweat ran down her face.

Could she really do it?  Shoot the pistol at a person?  After all the warnings and admonitions from her parents?   Heart clamoring, sweat oozing out of her pores, she swallowed against a desert dry throat.  This was crazy. Nuts!

Rachel lowered her gun. “Lila, I don’t think--” she started, her voice barely audible over scurrying feet and other whispers.  But Lila had disappeared. Of course. Running after Luke.

She inched around the wall, remembering the central staircase, the catwalks overhead, the high rafters near a ceiling that rose, cathedral-like above the remaining conveyor belts.   Beneath the belts were a series of huge holes in the floor where the chutes, once covered, were now open.

Another automatic burst of pellets and Rachel automatically ducked, running to a spot under the open stairs, peering through the metal steps.

Bam, bam, bam! Someone clambered up the stairs at a dead run.

Rachel backed up quickly, nearly tripped and banged her head on a bit of falling railing.  

“Crap,” she whispered under her breath as she heard, following the sharp series of shots, a flurry of footsteps, several people running, scrambling away, some laughing, others whispering.   Her heart was pounding, her head throbbing, and though she told herself over and over again that there was nothing to worry about, she couldn’t calm down. She was certain her folks would discover that she and Lila had lied, each telling their parents they were staying over at the other girl’s home.  Lila’s mother might cover for them, but Rachel’s parents, despite their upcoming divorce, would unite against their daughter’s disobedience and lies. And if they were caught, trespassing in a condemned building . . . no, she should never have come.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

A series of shots rang through the building.

“Ow!  Jesus!” a male voice shouted angrily.  “Shit! Not in the face! Shit! You’re a dead man, Hollander!”  Nate Moretti. Furious as hell.

More shots.  Louder. Or firecrackers?  Kids were running. Frantic footsteps behind her.  “Get out!” someone yelled.

“Reva?  Where are you?”  A girl . . . Geez, maybe Violet.  “Reva! Mercedes!” The girl sounded frantic.

“Vi?” Rachel whispered.  “Is that you?” She was holding up her gun and it shook in her hand.

Someone flew up the stairs, boots ringing.

More shots . . . with a flurry of flashes.  

Everything about this was wrong!

“Rachel!”  Violet again.  Closer. Crack!  “Oh! Shit! Aaaggghh! Frick!  Damn it.”

“What?”

“I ran into something.  God, it hurts! My leg. My shin. Oh, I think . . . I think I’m bleeding.  Oooh.” Her voice was trembling, wet-sounding. “It’s so dark in here!”

Suddenly she was beside Rachel, hiding behind the metal stair case.  

“I can’t see anything.”  She was sniffling now, close enough to be heard over the constant pounding of footsteps and the sputtering shots and yelps of victims.  “I should’ve worn my glasses.”

“You didn’t?” Rachel was squinting into the darkness between the rungs of the stairs.  That didn’t make sense. Not only was Violet blind as a bat without corrective lenses, a lot of the kids wore safety glasses.  

“No.  Didn’t want them scratched.”  

That was probably a lie.  Violet was self-conscious about her glasses, but now wasn’t the time to call her on it.  

Blam!  Definitely not an air gun.

“Let’s get out of here,” Rachel said, and didn’t wait for a response.  She wasn’t going to wait for Lila or risk getting hurt. Rounding the staircase, she started for the main door.  If she had to she’d walk back to her house, alone in the dark. Another spray of pellets. Sparks flying, firecrackers sounding like real shots.

“I’m coming,” Violet said.  “Oh, man, my leg—ow! Shit! Ow!  Stop it!”

This was crazy.  With her free hand, Rachel grabbed Violet’s arm.  “Hurry,” she said, but all of a sudden they were under attack, guns going off, rounds fired, sparks flaming, strings of lit firecrackers booming and leaving smoke behind.  “Move it!” she yelled to Violet as another burst of pellets screamed past, one pellet grazing her shoulder, another hitting her cheek and stinging. “Damn it.”

Another barrage.

She didn’t think twice, just shot back, moving toward the door.

Blam! Blam! Blam!

The firecrackers and gunshots echoed through the building.

“Aaaagh!” A male voice cried out.  “What the hell? Oh, Jesus! I–I’ve been hit!”

Luke?

She froze. Something in his tone.

Violet screamed, a shrill, horrified sound.

Rachel turned to see her brother in the gloom. His face ashen, his eyes wide, blood staining the front of his shirt.

His knees gave out.

He fell to the floor and Violet’s screams tore through the building.

Rachel dropped the gun.




 

 










Now

Edgewater, Oregon


Chapter 1

“Why not?”  Violet Sperry poured herself another glass of wine and sank back into the thick pillows on the bed.  She posed the question to her small dog, Honey, a silky King Charles Cavalier who was watching her from her doggy bed as Violet finished off the bottle.  As if the dog could understand. But it was better than talking to yourself. At least she thought so. Or was it just as crazy to talk to the dog? She’d left one window open a crack and a soft spring breeze was lifting the curtains as it swept into the room and brought with it the scent of honeysuckle that blended with the heady aroma of the Merlot.

She swirled the glass and smiled at the glorious purple liquid before taking a satisfying sip of the oh-so-smooth wine. This would be her last glass.  No matter what. She would not head downstairs and open another bottle.  No, no, no. She set the empty one behind the lamp on her bedside table.  She’d get rid of it–the “evidence”-- tomorrow before Leonard returned.

Leonard.  

Her husband of over fifteen years.

Once a slim athlete with a quick smile and thick brown hair, Leonard had been a man with a future when she’d met him, a man who was going to take on the world. He’d swept her off her feet and, really, he’d been the reason she’d moved past the trauma of the night of Luke Hollander’s death.  She’d been there twenty years ago. She’d seen him die. God, it was awful. She should never have gone to that damned cannery. She’d snuck out that night just to score points with Luke Hollander. Had she really intended to tell him that she was in love with him? He would have laughed her right out of that horrid old building.  She hadn’t been the only one with a major crush on Rachel Gaston’s brother, or half-brother or whatever he’d been.

Water under the bridge.  Or maybe under the pier where that awful dilapidated building had been built.  

Thankfully, it was all a long, long time ago.  

And in the interim, she’d met Leonard, the man with all of his dreams.

None of which had panned out.

Yeah, they’d moved to Seattle where he’d been intent on becoming an artist and had even bought into an art gallery, but that endeavor with its lofty ideals, pardon the pun, had been temporary.  Of course. As had her stab at being a singer for a garage band that had never made it out of back alley pubs.

It hadn’t worked out.  For either of them.

After a couple of years Leonard had readily, no, almost eagerly tossed away his dreams and moved back here to their hometown of Edgewater where he’d taken a job with his father at the furniture store.  There had been talk of him being a partner in the business, and eventually taking over Sperry’s Fine Furnishings, but so far that hadn’t panned out.  His father was still in the store every day, looking over Leonard’s shoulder as he tried his best to sell end tables, lamps and side chairs to the stingy losers who still lived here.  

Another swallow of wine to dispel any hint of dissatisfaction as she settled into the pillows of her bed, the best you could buy with a “breathable” but firm mattress and a contraption to make the head or foot rise with the mere push of a button.

One of the perks of being married to Leonard Sperry, furniture salesman extra ordinaire.

Shit.

She glanced at her phone where the message from Lila was on display.  Squinting, she read again:

Don’t forget.  Meeting for the reunion.  My house. Tomorrow @ 7:30.  Go Eagles!

As if.

No way was Violet attending the stupid twenty-year reunion, let alone joining the planning committee.  And to talk about the high school team? Twenty years after graduation? Ugh!  She took a long swallow from her glass, then deleted the message.  She’d never liked Lila back then, when she was a classmate, and she liked her even less now as some kind of Edgewater social climber and community leader.  As if being married to an old man of an attorney and running around doing good deeds for this tiny nothing community was important. Besides, the man she married was old as dirt, and the father of a fellow classmate. “How sick is that?” she said into her glass.

And now Lila wanted her to be a part of the reunion meeting.  Which was only part of her irritation. That stupid Mercedes Jennings . . . no, her name had changed . . . she was married to Tom Pope now, well, anyway, that stupid Mercedes Pope was a damned reporter and wanted to interview her about Luke Hollander’s death.

After twenty years.  Some kind of retro piece for the local paper.

No way.

Make that, no friggin’ way.

High school and all the drama, tears and tragedy was long over, thank God, and now she was married to Leonard and had three beautiful, wonderful fur-babies and . . . She glanced out the window to the dark night.  God, how had her life turned into such a mess?

Honey had padded across the room and was whining at the bedside.  

“Oh, you,” Violet said, her mood lifting at the sight of her happy dog.  “Can’t sleep? Well get on up here.” She patted the duvet and Honey didn’t hesitate, just hopped up quickly as if expecting Violent to change her mind.  Not likely. Leonard was the one who drew the line at pets in the bed. “There you go.” She petted the dog’s coppery coat.

As Honey settled against her on the thick pillows, her small body curled against Violet, she clicked through the channels to catch a late show.  Much as she hated to admit it, she didn’t sleep well when Leonard was out of town. It was stupid really, that she felt safer with him snoring beside her.  Yeah, he was thirty pounds overweight and his once-lush hair had thinned to the point that he clipped what remained close to his skull. He disapproved of her affinity for wine – like, really disapproved – but Len put up with her quirks.  When she told him she wasn’t interested in having children, he’d gone along with it.

Hence the dogs.  Her babies. Three pure-bred Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  Honey on the bed with her and the other two curled up in matching beds near the armoire in the corner.  She tried to set her glass on the bedside table and it slipped, sloshing wine onto the bed and into the partially open drawer in her night stand.

“No!”  She freaked for a second, then decided she’d deal with the